Two Lane Gems, Vol 1: Chapter 39 – Getting Bent

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!

Right before the turnoff to Bent’s Old Fort was a cobblestone arch and two stone markers. The first marker was a stone that had been installed in 1908 by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the State of Colorado to commemorate the Santa Fe Trail. Originally installed on a farm to the west, it was moved atop a pedestal to the left of the arch.

The second marker, situated in between the two pillars, was “Erected at the request of the Daughters of the American Revolution” in 1910 by A.E. Reynolds. That marker also referenced the Santa Fe Trail, as well as “the point on the trail where the brothers Charles and Col William Bent erected Bents Fort in 1829 – the most famous stopping point on the trail.” The arch itself was erected by the La Junta chapter of the DAR in 1930.

I think it’s safe to say that without the DAR, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site might not exist today.

The women were keenly interested in preserving the history of the pioneers and the Santa Fe Trail, and they found an ally in Albert E. Reynolds. “A.E.” owned the land and decided to give it to the La Junta chapter of the DAR in 1926, and the arch was built four years later to mark the entrance to the site.

In 1954 the DAR deeded the land to the State of Colorado for $1. The state sold it to the United States in 1960 for the same price, and it officially became part of the National Park Service.

Located north of the Arkansas River, a vital artery that was nearly hidden by the tall grasses along its banks, the imposing adobe structure was a painstakingly created reproduction of the original fort. The original had only existed for sixteen years, but during that time it was the trade center for pioneers, Native Americans, and Mexicans along the Mexico border, and was the only major permanent white settlement between Missouri and Mexico.

The Bent Brothers, Charles and William, built the fort in 1833 (despite what the marker claimed) with the help of their financial partner Ceran St. Vrain. It soon became a thriving trading center that primarily dealt in buffalo robes from the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, but if you had an item of value you could probably find a buyer.

It was known as a melting pot, with multiple nationalities occupying the place at any one time. While many languages were spoken, the one they all understood was commerce, and it kept Bent’s Fort in business until the Mexican-American War in 1846.

The next few years were a turmoil. Charles Bent became Governor of New Mexico but was murdered within a year, and in 1849 William Bent set off explosions in the fort which destroyed a good portion of it.

One story considered the cholera epidemic the reason, but another suggested that he was irritated the government wouldn’t pay him for their use of the fort during the war and, to add insult to injury, refused to buy it from him at a decent price. Hostilities with Native Americans were increasing and he’d planned to move up the Arkansas to Lamar anyway, so rather than let those Army fiends have it for free he blew the thing up.

We didn’t know any of this as we followed the quarter mile trail from the parking lot to the fort. We walked through the thick-walled entry and a man in period clothing stepped out from behind a cooking fire he’d been tending.

“Welcome,” he said. “Did you bring items to trade?”

“Um, no,” we replied, entertained and confused at the same time.

“This is a trading post, you see,” he explained. Ah. We’d thought it was a military garrison, with its single entrance, corner bastions, and loopholes for firing at attackers.

We’d left our National Parks Access Pass in the car so Jim walked back to retrieve it and met Gina and Lou on the way back. They were also on a month-long road trip, traveling from London, Ontario, and visiting National Parks, Monuments, and Historic Sites. When they reached the fort we were all four invited to watch an introductory film, but upon hearing it was twenty minutes Jim and I declined.

“We can’t spend much time here, unfortunately,” we said. “We’ve got to get back on the road.”

Famous last words.

Exploring the fort was fascinating. There was very little to take you out of the era. We spoke some with John, one of the interpretative actors who brought the past to life. Later in the gift shop we found a postcard with a man on horseback. “Is this John?” we asked. It was, and he graciously signed it for us before we left.

We explored just about every nook and cranny in the place, from the armory to the blacksmith shop to the dining room set with china. We ended up leaving at the same time as our Canadian friends. “I can see why it takes you so long to get places!” Lou quipped. Apparently, they were making better time than we were.

Tools at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
Cactus on top of the fort at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site

Lou was right; it was past time for us to get back on the road. We had reservations for dinner that evening in Wichita. It had been six days since we’d eaten someplace that wasn’t a campground or a hotel room. We were going to get all dressed up and fancy and eat a steak and I was going to have a martini and it was going to be very civilized and I forgot all about it the second I saw the sign for Amache Japanese American Relocation Center.

I had been looking at my computer. It was Thursday and I was finishing the weekly newsletter I sent out for The Local Tourist when I just happened to glance out the window. “Turn here,” I said calmly. Jim had seen the sign also and had already slowed down.

I briefly wondered, as I often had on this trip, if this was just a random coincidence, or if America was simply connected in so many ways that if you took a long enough road trip you’d find the tethers that bind. Sometimes those connections were random, but not this time; there were ten internment camps in the country, and our hodge-podge, supposedly random itinerary brought us to two of them.

The Granada Relocation Center was the smallest of the internment camps, yet it still had 7,300 prisoners at its peak and at the time was the tenth largest “city” in Colorado. Like Manzanar, there were eight guard towers. These were equipped with machine guns. Although never used, the threat was there.

Now, all that remains are concrete foundations, the road network, and interpretive signs.

If you’re wondering about the difference in names, it was originally called the Granada Relocation Center because of the nearby town, but with two post offices named “Granada” in such close proximity there was confusion.

The internment camp was renamed Amache after the wife of John W. Prowers, for whom the county was named. Amache was a Cheyenne, daughter of Chief Ochinee. There’s some irony in naming a relocation camp after a woman whose people had been relocated.

We still had a long, long way to go before we’d reach Wichita, so we turned Mae back onto US-50 and resumed our journey. We’d been on our own since Tonopah and were ready for people, structure, and one final, crazy itinerary.

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Previously published with modifications at Living History at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site.